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A Brief History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Daniel J. Castellano, M.A.


Part I
1. Medieval Background
2. Rise of Jewish Nationalism
3. WWI & the Balfour Declaration
4. Jewish Immigration into Palestine
5. Precursors to the State of Israel
6. Riots & Conflicts in the Mandate Period
7. Ascent of the Zionists
8. World War II
9. 1947 UN Partition of Palestine
10. Expulsion of Arabs & Founding of Israel
11. First Arab-Israeli War (1948)
12. The Refugee Question
13. Second Arab-Israeli War (1956)
14. The Six-Day War (1967)
15. UN Resolution 242
16. Radicalization of the PLO
17. Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition
18. The PLO in Jordan
19. Fourth Arab-Israeli War (1973)

Part II
20. Israeli Occupation of West Bank
21. UN Recognition of the PLO
22. Camp David Accords
23. Expansion of Israeli Settlements
24. The PLO in Lebanon
25. U.S. Withdrawal from Lebanon
26. Isolation of the PLO
27. Intifada of 1987
28. Persian Gulf War (1991)
29. Oslo Accords (1993)
30. Transition to Palestinian Authority
31. Barak-Arafat Negotiations (2000)
32. Second Intifada
33. Roadmap for Peace
34. Unilateral Disengagement
35. Ascent of Islamic Militants
36. Summary of Events

Part II

20. Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

The fortunes of the Arabs in the West Bank became increasingly tied to Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars. From 1948 to 1967, the territory had been claimed by King Hussein of Jordan, who opposed Palestinian independence. Under Israeli occupation, the overall economy of the West Bank shared in Israel’s economic boom between 1967 and 1973. This prosperity was limited by several important constraints that undermined Palestinian autonomy.

Although per capita revenue increased dramatically in the West Bank, much of this income came from Arabs working in Israel, a phenomenon that has continued to date. West Bank Arab laborers were required to leave Israel each night. They paid Israeli income taxes and received social security, but not medical benefits. Most Arab labor was unskilled.

West Bank farmers were permitted to export their crops to Jordan, but they also had to compete with Israeli agriculture on uneven terms. Certain West Bank crops were banned or limited in Israel in order not to compete with Israeli agriculture, and tariffs were imposed on West Bank imports. Conversely, the state-subsidized Israeli farmers could export to the West Bank without tariffs and easily undersell local farmers. West Bank Arabs were forbidden to import goods from other countries, guaranteeing an Israeli monopoly. These unfair trade practices, combined with the loss of labor to Israel, led to a decline in West Bank agriculture and dependence on Israeli goods.

Arab fortunes took a turn for the worse when the Likud party took power in 1977, with the ultranationalist and former terrorist Menachem Begin installed as prime minister. Begin advocated retaining the West Bank permanently, and took steps to promote the growth of Israeli settlements. The practice of settling near Arab communities in order to encircle or drive out the Arabs had already been started by the Labor party, but Likud escalated this policy substantially. With Ariel Sharon as minister of agriculture, Arab lands were expropriated with minimal legal pretext, and Jewish settlements grew rapidly, with heavily subsidized utilities and public works.

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21. UN Recognition of the PLO

Israel’s attempts to systematically destroy any basis for Palestinian autonomy met with widespread international sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian question was again brought before the UN, not in terms of a peace settlement between existing nations, but as a demand for the Palestinian right of national self-determination. This recognition of Palestinian nationhood favored the legitimization of the PLO’s status and some of its goals, if not its methods.

On 14 October 1974, the General Assembly passed Resolution 3210 (by a vote of 105 in favor, 4 opposed, and 20 abstaining), which recognized the Palestinian people as “the principal party to the question of Palestine,” and acknowledged the PLO as the “representative of the Palestinian people.” This resolution refuted both Jordanian and Israeli claims to the West Bank and their attempts to deny Palestinians an independent political voice. Israel decried Resolution 3210 as illegal and contrary to the UN Charter, since the PLO’s national charter called for the destruction of Israel through armed force.

Diplomatic recognition of the PLO did not entail approval of its rejectionist goals and terrorist tactics, but simply acknowledged that there was no other organization that could speak on behalf of the Palestinian people. This distinction was clarified somewhat by Resolution 3236, passed on 22 November (89 in favor, 8 opposed, 37 abstaining), which affirmed the Palestinians’ right to reclaim their inalienable rights “by all means in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” thereby excluding terrorism. he inalienable rights of the Palestinians include their “right to self-determination without external interference,” their “right to national independence and sovereignty,” and their right “to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted.” In light of the legitimization of the Palestinian national cause, the PLO was granted UN observer status by Resolution 3237, passed on the same day (95 in favor, 17 opposed, and 19 abstentions).

The U.S. was among the minority that opposed recognition of the PLO, due to its policy of demanding that the PLO first recognize Israel's right to exist. American distrust of the PLO was seemingly vindicated by PFLP and PDFLP terrorist actions in which hostages were killed in early 1974. President Gerald Ford promoted Israeli negotiations with Arab nations instead of the PLO, resulting in the Sinai II agreement of 1975, but Middle East diplomacy was effectively suspended during the election year of 1976.

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22. The Camp David Accords

Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister in 1977 seemingly dimmed the prospects of peace in the Middle East, as he uncompromisingly demanded annexation of the entire West Bank and the Golan, and declared he would never negotiate with the “Nazi” PLO even if they did recognize Israel. He aggressively expanded Israeli settlements into Arab territories, displacing Arabs on the slightest pretext.

In the U.S., President Jimmy Carter advocated a Palestinian “homeland,” without calling for sovereign statehood. His attempts to bring the PLO into negotiation with Israel were thwarted by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which caused many PLO leaders to reject any U.S.-brokered agreement, and again by Israeli refusal to be bound by Resolution 242, as expressed in the Joint U.S.-USSR statement of 1 October 1977.

Carter focused instead on a bilateral peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. This was no small task, due to Begin's attempts to establish de facto Israeli dominion over oil fields, air bases, and settlements in the Sinai. Ultimately, Begin was willing to sacrifice the Sinai in exchange for what he considered guaranteed dominion of the West Bank. The agreement on the parameters of West Bank autonomy negotiated at Camp David in September 1978 omitted any reference to Resolution 242. The accord mentioned “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” but Begin interpreted these as merely personal rights, not a right to collective self-determination. Carter’s attempt to halt the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank was foiled by Begin’s denial of this verbal agreement, accepting only a three-month moratorium on construction instead. Thus the process of Israeli annexation of the West Bank continued unabated, while the other Camp David accord established peace with Egypt in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, completed in stages by 1982. Despite this partial success, the Camp David accords were rejected by most of the Arab world, since it seemed that Sadat had sold the cause of Palestinian autonomy in exchange for the territory of Sinai. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League for accepting these peace terms with Israel in 1979.

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23. Expansion of Israeli West Bank Settlements

Begin and Sharon antagonized the Palestinians through their policy of systematically confiscating Arab land in the West Bank and transferring it to Jewish settlers. At first, this was done by claiming private land for military purposes or allowing Jewish settlers to unilaterally seize land. When this practice was criticized, Sharon turned to public lands in the West Bank to be used for Jewish settlement. In 1980, he began to claim vast tracts of Arab land as state-owned, giving only three weeks for the owners to prove their claim before a military tribunal. Through these extralegal measures, Israel confiscated over 500,000 acres, or about 35% of the West Bank. Additionally, another 100,000 acres of private land was purchased from Arabs by the Jewish National Fund, so a total of 40% of the West Bank was claimed by Israel.

After his re-election in June 1981, Begin decided to resolve the question of Palestinian autonomy on his own, since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October, and the new president Hosni Mubarak would not make concessions on Palestine until the Sinai withdrawal was complete. In November, Begin established a civilian administration over the West Bank, which was still answerable to the Israeli military. Palestinian autonomy would be expressed through leagues of village officials who accepted Israeli policy. This attempted vassalage provoked widespread Palestinian protest, resulting in brutal repression. On 16 December, the UN General Assembly condemned Israel in Resolution 36/147C for failing to acknowledge the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied territories, including Jerusalem, and condemned the following Israeli policies:

  1. Annexation of parts of the occupied territories, including Jerusalem;
  2. Establishment of new Israeli settlements and expansion of the existing settlements on private and public Arab lands, and transfer of an alien population thereto;
  3. Evacuation, deportation, expulsion, displacement and transfer of Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories and denial of their right to return;
  4. Confiscation and expropriation of private and public Arab property in the occupied territories and all other transactions for the acquisition of land involving the Israeli authorities, institutions or nationals on the one hand and the inhabitants or institutions of the occupied territories on the other;
  5. Excavations and transformations of the landscape and the historical, cultural and religious sites, especially in Jerusalem;
  6. Destruction and demolition of Arab houses;
  7. Mass arrests, administrative detention and ill-treatment of the Arab population;
  8. Ill-treatment and torture of persons under detention;
  9. Pillaging of archaeological and cultural property;
  10. Interference with religious freedoms and practices as well as family rights and customs;
  11. Interference with the system of education and with the social and economic development of the population in the occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories;
  12. Interference with the freedom of movement of individuals within the occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories;
  13. Illegal exploitation of the natural wealth, resources and population of the occupied territories;

The resolution passed 111–2, with only the U.S. and Israel opposing. The newly elected Reagan administration immediately adopted a policy of one-sided support of Israel, opposing the entire world in its condemnation of the blatant human rights violations of Begin’s government. A partial list includes:

This unequivocal support of Israel was to some extent a continuation of Carter’s policy of not recognizing Palestinian claims until the PLO recognized Israel. To Arab eyes, the US position appeared to be an endorsement of Israel’s most egregious human rights violations, serving to demolish the Americans’ credibility as mediators.

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24. The PLO in Lebanon

Banished from Jordan after the Jordanian civil war of 1971, the PLO leadership established itself in Lebanon, where there was already a substantial Palestinian population, mainly concentrated in refugee camps in the south. Tensions between Palestinians and Lebanese surfaced as Lebanon bore the brunt of Israeli reprisals against PLO attacks. The situation was complicated by Syrian support of the more radical PLO groups and Israeli support of Maronite Catholic paramilitary groups. Sometimes the Maronites received Saudi or even Syrian support, as was the case toward the end of the Lebanese civil war of 1976, when Syria permitted Maronite militias to commit mass killings of Palestinian refugees.

Israel actually preferred the anarchic situation in southern Lebanon, as it allowed the opportunity for attacks on Palestinians. When Syria, Lebanon, and the PLO reached an agreement in 1977 to have Palestinians withdraw from the Israeli border and be replaced by Lebanese troops, Begin objected to the plan. Instead, he supported the Lebanese militia headed by the Greek Catholic Major Saad Haddad, who would take over Muslim villages, creating a buffer zone for Israel.

In order to stifle Egyptian and American attempts to resolve the Palestine issue without recognizing independent Palestinian sovereignty, the PLO escalated its terrorist activities in 1978. On 11 March, Fatah operatives hijacked an Israeli bus, eventually killing most of the passengers, including women and children, after a shootout with police outside Tel Aviv. A total of 35 victims were killed and 100 injured.

The horrible crime certainly merited a strong response, but Begin seized the opportunity to stage a disproportionately massive invasion of Lebanon that had been planned for months. Four days after the bus massacre, 20,000 Israeli troops were sent over the border, shelling Lebanese Muslim villages, and forcing the evacuation of over 100,000 Lebanese, giving Israel and Haddad free rein over the Palestinians. The UN and the U.S. called for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, and in June Begin complied, as a UN force moved into the region. Begin had failed to oust the PLO from its bases in southern Lebanon.

PLO attacks on Israel continued intermittently through 1981, as did Israeli attacks on the PLO with artillery fire, air strikes and commando raids, often resulting in Lebanese civilian deaths. These measures proved ineffective at containing the growth of the Palestinian fighting force, which now numbered in the thousands and was increasingly well armed. Israel could no longer guarantee the security of its northernmost residents, so Begin would seek to destroy the PLO definitively through another invasion of Lebanon.

In April 1981, the Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel sought to control the strategic Lebanese city of Zahle between Beirut and Damascus. The Syrians, who supported Gemayel’s Muslim opponents, sent in troops and helicopters, provoking the intervention of Israeli warplanes in support of Gemayel. Syria responded by deploying missiles near Zahle, which would impede Israeli raids against Palestinians in southern Lebanon. The Reagan administration brought veteran diplomat Philip Habib out of retirement to successfully negotiate a halt to the escalation in May.

In July, Israeli forces attacked the PLO in south Lebanon, resulting in an exchange of rocket fire. Israel escalated the conflict further with an air strike against the PLO leadership in West Beirut, killing 200 and injuring 600, mostly civilians, only about thirty of these affiliated with the PLO. The PLO responded with large scale rocket attacks on northern Israel, killing six civilians and wounding fifty-nine. Habib negotiated a ceasefire on 24 July.

After the ceasefire, the PLO continued to launch attacks from Jordan into the West Bank. Israel claimed that this was a violation of the ceasefire, but the PLO held that this applied only to the Lebanese front. The PLO in Lebanon was heavily armed with rockets and even had tanks, while the PLO in Jordan hardly resembled an army. The heavy armaments came from Syria, where President Hafez al-Assad played a delicate game of supporting the Palestinians indirectly, yet also using Shi’ite Muslim militia groups to hold the PLO in check and to promote his own ambition to have a Syrian-friendly government installed in Lebanon. Although the PLO’s heavy weaponry in Lebanon remained silent, Begin would not tolerate Palestinian guerilla activities in the West Bank, and sought to destroy the PLO on all fronts.

Later in the year, after the Begin government was re-elected, Ariel Sharon, who was now defense minister, devised a plan for a full invasion of Lebanon. The objective was to destroy the PLO leadership and military capability, and to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon, allowing Bashir Gemayel to be installed as president. Sharon met several times with Gemayel in preparation for the joint offensive. In February 1982, Begin and Sharon sent their military intelligence chief to Washington in order to determine the American stance on their planned invasion. Secretary of State Alexander Haig indicated there could be no such action unless there was a major provocation from the PLO.

Begin sought his cabinet’s approval for a limited invasion of southern Lebanon, while Sharon secretly planned a much larger campaign all the way to Beirut. In order to publicly validate the invasion, Israel would launch air strikes against the PLO in retaliation to any violent incident, in the hopes of provoking a large enough PLO response to justify war. To this end, an Israeli air strike followed the assassination of an Israeli diplomat and the death of an Israeli officer from a land mine in April 1982, but the PLO did not respond. On 9 May, Israel launched another strike after explosives were discovered on a bus, but the PLO responded only with a limited rocket attack, not enough to plausibly justify a full invasion. In late May, Sharon showed Haig the plans for an attack all the way to Beirut, and Haig reiterated that a major provocation would be necessary before taking action.

The desired pretext for war finally came on 3 June 1982, when a rogue Fatah group led by Abu Nidal attempted to assassinate the Israeli prime minister to Britain. The PLO was clearly not responsible, since Abu Nidal had a history of assassinating PLO and Fatah representatives. Nevertheless, Begin ordered bombing raids of PLO targets, provoking a PLO response of massive artillery attacks on Israel, finally giving Begin the justification he needed to invade. Sharon obtained the approval of the Israeli cabinet for an invasion of southern Lebanon.

The invasion of Lebanon began on 6 June, and Sharon soon ordered the army to engage the Syrians, provoking an escalation to justify his original plan of marching on Beirut. By 15 June, Israeli forces were just outside the Lebanese capital. Unwilling to risk urban combat, Sharon ordered a massive bombardment of the Palestinian sector of West Beirut. The bombing campaign destroyed the Lebanese civilian rail and air systems, and killed over 6,000 civilians, wounding 30,000. Haig approved of the bombing, as it comported with the U.S. objective of forcing the PLO to leave Lebanon. Others in the Reagan administration disapproved of the callous disregard for innocent life, and Haig was forced to resign on 25 June.

Once more, Philip Habib was sent to negotiate the peace, and he again succeeded on 12 August, despite Sharon’s deliberate violation of the cease-fire a day earlier in the hopes of provoking a final conflict in West Beirut. A UN peacekeeping force was dispatched to monitor the Palestinian camps, and the PLO forces in Beirut left Lebanon by 1 September.

As the last PLO fighters left Lebanon, President Reagan proposed a new Middle East peace plan, calling for a halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and denying Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories. He unambiguously affirmed, against Begin, that “the withdrawal position of Resolution 242 applies to all fronts, including the West Bank and Gaza,” yet he also denied that the “legitimate rights” of Palestinians included the right to a Palestinian state. Reagan envisioned a settlement of the Palestinian question without involving the PLO, granting the Palestinians full autonomy, but under Jordanian sovereignty.

While Reagan had learned to distance himself from Begin’s position, Sharon was planning a final atrocity in Lebanon. On 12 September, he agreed with Bashir Gemayel, who had been elected president of Lebanon on 23 August, to send Gemayel’s Phalangist militia into Palestinian refugee camps outside of Beirut, and exterminate any resistance. When president-elect Gemayel was assassinated on 14 September, it was deemed desirable to implement the plan immediately. Sharon violated the U.S.-brokered truce and sent troops into West Beirut on 16 September. The Israelis escorted 200 Phalangists to the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps, where the militia men slaughtered 800–1500 civilians of various nationalities. The pretext of the mission was to eradicate 2000 PLO fighters that had not withdrawn from Lebanon, but this story was belied by the small number of men sent into the camps. An Israeli commission later found Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre, having been told in advance what the Phalangists would do to the refugees.

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25. Israeli and U.S. Withdrawal from Lebanon

In the wake of the Shatila and Sabra massacre, the U.S. sent troops to join the multinational peacekeeping force in order to protect the Palestinians in Lebanon. The Reagan administration attempted to negotiate the Palestinian question with King Hussein of Jordan, and proposed a sale of arms to Jordan while halting any increase in aid to Israel. The U.S. Congress, apparently unmoved by the recent atrocities in Lebanon, rejected Reagan’s proposal and increased aid to Israel, while denying arms sales to Jordan. Jewish votes and Jewish lobbyists have consistently been of greater importance to U.S. congressmen and senators than the brutality of the Israeli regime. The Senate in particular has been slavishly beholden to Israeli interests, with over 80% of senators expressing unconditional support of Israel. These political considerations make it difficult for even a well-meaning president to conduct even-handed Middle East diplomacy.

Reagan’s overtures to Hussein were undermined not only by U.S. congressional politics, but by rival Arab interests. Hussein did not dare exclude the PLO from negotiations, for fear of isolating himself from the Arab world, so he consulted with Arafat. Arafat, in turn, was constrained by rivals within the PLO who opposed indirect negotiations through Hussein. These tensions caused Hussein to break off talks in early 1983 and refuse to negotiate directly with Israel.

On the Lebanese front, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz negotiated an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon on the condition of Syrian withdrawal. The Lebanese-Israeli treaty, signed on 17 May 1983, would have prohibited central and northern Lebanese forces from entering southern Lebanon, which would be patrolled by Saad Haddad. Haddad’s militia was to be incorporated into a southern Lebanese army, effectively allowing Israel to control the south by proxy through Haddad.

U.S. troops in Lebanon were frequently attacked by Shi'ite Muslim militias, sometimes with Syrian backing. The security situation worsened when Yitzhak Shamir, who replaced Begin as prime minister after the latter’s resignation in August 1983, withdrew Israeli troops from the vicinity of Beirut on 3 September. This exposed U.S. soldiers to attacks from militiamen of the Druze religion, an eclectic faith professed by many Lebanese Arabs. On 5 September, two U.S. marines were killed in the crossfire between Druze and Maronite forces. The Reagan administration ordered a heavy naval bombardment against the Druze militias, resulting in many civilian deaths. As a result of this ill-conceived measure, the Muslim and Druze militias no longer regarded the U.S. marines as neutral observers.

On 23 October, a Muslim guerilla detonated a 12,000-pound bomb under a building housing U.S. marines, killing 241 American personnel. The Shi’ite guerrillas sponsoring the attack were supported the Iranians, and would eventually become known as Hezbollah. The U.S. continued the fight with heavy air raids against Syrian positions in eastern Lebanon, losing two carrier planes to Syrian missiles, and earning the enmity of many Lebanese due to substantial civilian casualties. On 5 February 1984, Reagan accused U.S. critics of the strikes of attempting “to cut and run,” yet two days later, he announced that all U.S. marines would be “redeployed” off-shore, and the last marines retreated from Lebanon on 26 February. A final shelling of Druze and Shi’ite targets inflicted more civilian casualties, but could not hide the fact that the Americans had been defeated, and the U.S. navy withdrew from the area.

The Shi’ite militias turned some of their attention to southern Lebanon, where the Israelis raided villages in order to crush Palestinian resistance. The Lebanese resented these assaults, as well as Israel's blockade of trade with the rest of the country, forcing southern Lebanon to become dependent on Israeli goods. The Israelis finally withdrew to a position fifteen kilometers north of the Israeli border by June 1985.

Arafat and other PLO leaders had fled to Tunis by the end of 1983, but some PLO operatives remained in Lebanon, where they were attacked by the largest Shi’ite militia, Amal, which inflicted heavy civilian casualties in the Palestinian camps. A more militant Shi’ite group, Hezbollah, attacked Israeli troops in Lebanon until their withdrawal in 1985.

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26. The Isolation of the PLO

Yasser Arafat, now exiled to Tunis, sought to regain relevance by negotiating with Hussein of Jordan to accept a Palestinian “state” that would be under Jordanian sovereignty. The Reagan administration refused to deal with the PLO directly, and opposed Palestinian “self-determination,” understanding that term to imply statehood. Favoring a Jordanian occupation of most of the West Bank, Reagan’s position was unacceptable to Israelis and Palestinians alike, guaranteeing a stalemate.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher opposed Reagan’s policy, which was concerned more with U.S. domination of the peace process than actually solving the Palestinian question. She invited Fatah members to meet with her, undermining the American refusal to negotiate with the PLO. Militant PLO members who opposed the peace process attempted to sabotage the upcoming meeting by killing three Israelis in Cyprus on 25 September. Predictably, the Israelis, now governed by a joint Labor-Likud coalition, blamed Arafat and retaliated with excessive force, bombing PLO headquarters in Tunis and killing about fifty people, including Tunisians, on 1 October. The UN Security Council voted 14 to 0 to condemn Israel’s “act of armed aggression.” The U.S., alienated even from Britain, was the lone abstention, and refrained from vetoing the resolution only for fear that it would incite a rebellion against the pro-Western Tunisian government.

As always, Israeli militance proved shortsighted, and only begot more violence, as revenge for the Tunis bombings took the form of the infamous hijacking of the Achille Lauro on 8 October. Although Arafat asked the hijackers to surrender, the incident reinforced the perception that he was incapable of containing terrorism in his own organization. Israel and the PLO terrorists did succeed in derailing the peace process, as Arafat reneged on his offer to recognize Israel, and the meeting with the British was cancelled.

In February 1986, King Hussein abandoned his policy of negotiating with the PLO, and agreed to deal directly with Israel. Under the Labor-Likud power sharing agreement, Labor prime minister Shimon Peres would turn power over to Likud mid-term in October, and the Likud had no intention of relinquishing any territory. Some limited Palestinian self-governance was allowed, as Arab mayors were appointed in three West Bank towns. This groundwork would force Likud to continue with the peace process, and exclude the PLO from negotiations.

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27. The Intifada of 1987

From 1985 onward, Arab discontent in the occupied territories escalated as the Israeli government continued its policy of seizing Arab land and turning it over to Jewish settlers. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin defended this policy through “iron fist” tactics that stoked more resentment, expressed in stone throwing incidents by Palestinian youths. Israel retaliated with raids and detentions without trial, and even resorted to demolishing the homes of suspected rioters. Detainees were routinely beaten and sometimes tortured.

The spark for a major uprising would be ignited in the Gaza Strip, where the demographics were younger and more Islamic than the West Bank. The militant Muslim Brotherhood, which had assassinated Sadat, thrived in Gaza, as did numerous offshoot groups. These groups generally advocated violent opposition to Israel in order to establish a Palestinian state. As PLO influence declined, due to the relocation of its leadership to Tunis, these Islamic groups gained greater local prestige. On 8 December, an Israeli truck crashed into two Gazan refugee vans, killing four Palestinians. Immediately, rumors were stoked by militant Muslims that this had been an act of deliberate revenge for the stabbing of an Israeli by a Gazan Arab the previous day.

The popular response to this alleged crime was disproportionately large, as Arabs seized on this incident to express their frustration with Israeli policies of bulldozing, beating, and raiding. This spontaneous uprising came to be known as the intifada, or “shaking off” the chains of oppression to which they had been shackled by the Likud regime. The rebellion would ultimately draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinians, expose the brutality of the Israeli regime, and force a reopening of the peace process.

As mass demonstrations spread throughout Gaza and the West Bank, the PLO in Tunis looked for a way to harness this energy toward their objectives. In January 1988, the PLO called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons, and the trial of Israeli soldiers for crimes. Israel, for its part, continued its harsh tactics, including the deportation of Palestinians outside the territories, as if to deny the very notion of Palestinian nationality. Golda Meir had famously said, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian,” in order to justify Israeli domination of Palestine. Consistent with this attitude, the current government regarded any Arab who would not submit to the Israeli yoke a “terrorist,” notwithstanding that the demonstrators did not use knives or guns.

The racist attitude expressed by the Israeli leadership was that Palestinians could only understand force, so it was acceptable to fire upon demonstrators or beat prisoners to “teach them a lesson,” as Yitzhak Rabin put it. Rabin claimed “beatings never killed anybody,” and authorized soldiers to perform mass beatings, which precipitated large scale riots. This brutality was merely an escalation of long-standing Israeli practice of treating Jews and Arabs differently, severely beating and even torturing the latter. This double standard, coupled with the numerous economic and social inequities discussed earlier, constitutes what Jimmy Carter has recently called a state of “apartheid.” Carter was excoriated by the Israelis and their sympathizers for this choice of term, as if a harsh word were a greater crime than beating children aged under five, bulldozing houses, and attempting to starve a population. The last remark is not hyperbole, but an actual tactic used repeatedly by Israel, as Israel cut off food supplies to Arab villages, and soldiers destroyed family gardens and orchards to prevent Arabs from becoming self-sufficient.

The brutal tactics used by the Israelis to suppress the intifada were so extreme, that not only did they receive the expected condemnation of the UN (SC Resolution 607), but there was also strong domestic opposition to these policies, in some cases leading to the trial of Israeli soldiers. Assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the imprisonment of peace advocates proved to be misdirected, as the intifada received most of its momentum from below. Arab solidarity strengthened in the face of indiscriminate persecution, leading to boycotts of Israeli goods and refusal to pay Israeli taxes.

Israel responded by confiscating property in payment of taxes, using snipers to kill stone throwers, and destroying Palestinian food supplies. Through 1989, 626 Palestinians and 43 Israelis were killed, while over 37,000 Arabs were wounded, and over 35,000 had been arrested. Far from relenting, Ariel Sharon even called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan, which would complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. By 1989, Arab violence escalated in some instances to the use of knives and grenades. The later stages of the intifada also witnessed the rise of militant Islamic groups such as Hamas, predominantly concentrated in the Gaza Strip.

The PLO refrained from ordering terrorist or guerrilla attacks during the intifada, and in 1988 began to issue statements calling for a Palestinian state to coexist with Israel. In December, the U.S. recognized the PLO as having renounced terrorism and having accepted Resolution 242. Recognition of the PLO was supported by several American Jewish groups, but opposed by both Likud and Labor in Israel. Washington attempted to allay Israeli distrust by incorporating the Palestinians into a Jordanian-led delegation for peace talks. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused even these talks, revealing his intention to keep the entire West Bank and to deny Palestinian national rights even after the PLO renounced terrorism. This proved that Likud objections to terrorism were merely a convenient excuse to retain the conquered territories. Foreign minister Shimon Peres of Labor, on the other hand, welcomed the American proposal for peace talks, but he was demoted after Likud strengthened its majority coalition as a result of the November 1988 elections.

Shamir sought to dissuade calls for peace talks by allowing limited Palestinian autonomy over “affairs of daily life,” while leaving Israel in charge of security. It was clear that this autonomy did not signify independence from Israel, nor any sort of national sovereignty, as Shamir declared, “We shall not give the Arabs one inch of our land, even if we have to negotiate for ten years. We won't give them a thing.” The occupied territories were considered by Likud to be Israeli land in their entirety. Some of the more extreme members of the party, such as Ariel Sharon, objected even to the plan for limited autonomy.

Local Palestinian leaders rejected Shamir’s plan, as it rejected Palestinian statehood, retaining Israeli sovereignty over all the territories, and imposed no restrictions on the expansion of Jewish settlements. The newly inaugurated Bush administration gave Shamir a year to find Palestinians who would be willing to discuss his proposals, and Shamir used this bought time to suppress the intifada throughout 1989.

The Bush administration considered the status of all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, to be negotiable, and opposed any attempt to expand Israeli settlements in any of these territories. In March 1990, Shamir brazenly rejected these positions, and even boasted that he would settle as many Soviet Jews in East Jerusalem as possible. Labor withdrew from the governing coalition, and Likud was free to expand settlements, especially near East Jerusalem. When Jewish settlers occupied a Greek Orthodox hospice across from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday, 11 April, Arab protests ensued, as it became clear that Likud had funded the operation, as part of Ariel Sharon’s strategy to remove all Christian and Muslim Arabs from East Jerusalem.

Israel resumed its policy of killing unarmed demonstrators, and did the same when Arabs protested the killing of seven Gazans by an Israeli on 20 May. Arafat would address the UN Security Council in May regarding Israeli reprisals, which killed seventeen and wounded over 600, as well as other harsh conditions in the territories.

At this critical moment in the conflict, the Bush administration displayed ambivalence. Having been amenable to including Palestinians from East Jerusalem in a Jordanian-led peace delegation, the administration now faced some domestic opposition, as the U.S. Senate passed a resolution on 22 March, in defiance of global consensus and international law, that a unified Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. This capitulation to Jewish American sensibilities strengthened Arab perceptions that the U.S. was one-sidedly backing Israel again, and Bush did not help matters by denying Arafat a visa to speak at the UN. Arafat instead addressed the UN at Geneva on 25 May, calling for an investigation of conditions in the occupied territories. While the UN deliberated, an Arab summit in Baghdad on 28-30 May condemned U.S. support of Israel. In a separate statement on 30 May, the Arab League declared it would desist from criticizing the U.S. by name only when it “abandons its policy of total bias toward Israel.”

On 30 May, the Israelis intercepted an attack from Abu al-Abbas, the Achille Lauro hijacker who now lived in Baghdad. Although Abbas’ opposition to Arafat and the peace process was widely known, the U.S. used the attack as an excuse to veto the Security Council resolution on 31 May that called for an investigation of the condition of Palestinians in the territories. All other nations supported the resolution, including, as Bush admitted, his “strongest allies” in Europe and “most reasonable and moderate” Arab states. This isolated support of Israel in the wake of serious human rights abuses exposed the U.S. to criticism from its Arab allies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and discredited the Americans as serious peace negotiators. U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East appeared to be driven by domestic ethnic politics rather than principles of international law and human rights.

Bush’s political weakness bought time for Shamir, and by 28 June 1990, the Israeli prime minister was sufficiently confident in his program to expand the settlements, so he withdrew his 1989 offer of limited Palestinian autonomy. The collapse of the peace process strengthened existing trends toward increased Arab militance in the territories, as more Palestinians supported Hamas and the PFLP, while Arafat continued to lose relevance.

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28. The Persian Gulf War (1991)

Arafat undermined his own credibility in the eyes of many Arabs, including some Palestinians, by supporting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Although most Arab nations agreed with Saddam that Kuwait had been underpricing its oil, they condemned the invasion, as well as the looting and killing that ensued. Many Palestinians living in Kuwait were victims of the pillaging, exposing the falsity of Saddam’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric, and making Arafat seem to have betrayed some of his own people. Arafat saw Saddam as a convenient ally, heading a powerful nation with enough leverage to pressure the U.S. to resume peace negotiations. Many Palestinians in the occupied territories and in Jordan supported Saddam, if only because he strongly opposed Israel and the U.S.

The Bush administration viewed Saddam’s attempt to become a regional power broker with apprehension, since his pan-Arab nationalist program focused on regional economic development which would drive up the price of oil. By 1990, the U.S. imported 50% of its petroleum, and the current economic recession left little tolerance for a surge in energy costs. The invasion of Kuwait gave the U.S. an opportunity to cripple Iraq’s military and economic infrastructure, derailing Saddam’s regional ambitions. Direct U.S. military deployment would have been politically unfeasible had not Saddam violated the sovereignty of another nation. To guarantee domestic support, the Bush administration emphasized the dangers of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons, as well as Iraq’s nuclear potential, to inflate Iraq into a plausible existential threat to the American superpower.

Although most Arabs opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, many Arab leaders criticized the aggressive U.S. response, which stood in stark contrast to its decades of tolerance of Israeli transgressions, and even its own illegal invasion of Panama in 1989. King Hussein of Jordan was especially critical, since his country was victimized by sanctions on Iraqi oil. Jordan received hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Kuwait, adding more pressure to accede to Palestinian demands. Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, called for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank into Jordan, without any reprimand from the U.S. Jordan, on the other hand, saw its aid from the U.S. reduced sharply as a result of Hussein’s criticisms. This was part of a general U.S. policy of using economic coercion to obtain support for its policy in the UN.

The actual military conflict was brief, as the U.S.-dominated coalition launched a month of punishing airstrikes against Iraqi military and industrial targets in January 1991, destroying civilian infrastructure in the process. Hussein attempted to rally pan-Arab support by launching missiles at Tel Aviv, but the U.S. was able to persuade the Israelis to refrain from any military response. The air campaign was followed by a brief ground assault on Kuwait while the Iraqi army was already in full retreat. The Americans seized the opportunity to destroy Iraqi military hardware, with heavy aerial bombardments that caused more destruction in Kuwait than the Iraqi invasion.

The Gulf War accomplished the American objective of neutralizing Hussein as a regional power without escalating the Arab-Israeli crisis. Nevertheless, this success came at the expense of further alienating the U.S. from much of the Arab world, which could now add to its list of grievances the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian crisis resulting from the embargo against Iraq. The U.S. lost its credibility as a peace mediator, so the Palestinians would have to turn to Europe in order to revitalize the peace process.

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29. The Oslo Accords (1993)

While American attempts at bilateral diplomacy via the Madrid conference of 1991 went nowhere, the Norwegians secretly opened diplomatic channels between Israel and the PLO. Labor won the 1992 Israeli elections, making Yitzhak Rabin prime minister. On 19 August 1993, Rabin and Arafat agreed to a Declaration of Principles, an expression of the boldest plan yet for a permanent settlement to the Palestinian question.

The Declaration of Principles was a program for Palestinian self-rule over parts of the occupied territories, as part of a gradual transition accompanied by Israeli withdrawal. Self-rule included authority over education, health, social welfare, taxation and tourism, but fell short of actual sovereignty, which Israel did not renounce. More significantly, Palestinians were allowed to build their own police force from existing PLO forces, an extraordinary concession by Israel. The move to self-rule would take place over a five-year transition period, similar to what had been envisioned by the Camp David accords, except that now full recognition was given to the PLO rather than Jordan as a negotiating partner.

Although the U.S. was not involved in the Oslo negotiations, newly elected President Bill Clinton received the spotlight as the agreement implementing the Oslo accords was signed in Washington on 13 September 1993. This occasioned the first of many “historic handshakes” between Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, a photo opportunity Arafat relished, as it legitimized him as the founding leader of the Palestinian people.

The Oslo accords were to be implemented in stages. First Gaza and Jericho would be handed over to Palestinian rule, with Israeli withdrawal to occur by April 1994. A Palestinian Council would be elected by July 1994, at which point Israeli forces would withdraw from Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and four other West Bank cities. The Palestinians would have full civil control over Arab-populated areas, covering almost half of the West Bank, and full military control over Gaza and the eight largest Arab population centers besides Jerusalem. The rest of the West Bank, consisting of Israeli settlements, sparsely inhabited regions, and water sources, would remain under exclusive Israeli civil and military administration. The Israeli military would be jointly responsible with the Palestinians for security outside the specified Arab populations centers. The status of Jerusalem was not covered by the accords.

Despite the accord’s notable accomplishments, namely the mutual official recognition between Israel and the PLO of each other’s right to exist, and the first concrete implementation of a path toward Palestinian self-rule, the Oslo agreement deferred the major issues to a permanent settlement. The most notable omissions were the status of Jerusalem and the right of the return of refugees from the 1948 war. The agreement also stopped short of guaranteeing a right of return for the 200,000 Palestinians who fled the West Bank during the 1967 war. Most importantly, though seldom mentioned, the accord did not involve Israel relinquishing a square inch of land to the Palestinians, but only conceded the right to rule over persons in specified parts of the West Bank, a distinction lost on many Westerners, but common to Middle East notions of sovereignty dating to the Ottoman period. The type of Palestinian autonomy promoted by Oslo was similar to that which Hussein had advocated, only now Palestinian self-rule was under the umbrella of Israeli sovereignty rather than Jordanian sovereignty. Any discussion of sovereignty would also be deferred to a permanent settlement, for which negotiations were to begin no later than December 1995. The negotiated permanent agreement would take effect no later than December 1998.

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30. Transition to Palestinian Authority

The actual implementation of the Oslo accords has had a checkered history. At first, all boded well as an agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area was signed by Israel and the PLO in Cairo on 4 May 1994. This agreement defined a Palestinian Authority with legislative and executive powers in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, with defined territorial and personal jurisdictions. The Palestinian Authority would have no authority over foreign relations or diplomatic functions, these being reserved to the PLO, yet only in limited contexts. The Palestinians could have a police force, but no army, and it was illegal to import military weapons into the territories. Both sides agreed to desist from incendiary propaganda against the other.

An annex to the agreement established economic relations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority could directly tax the people in its territories, though Israel could tax Palestinians who worked in Israel. Israel agreed to give 75% of the income tax collected from Palestinians to the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority for its part, was restricted in the customs rates and sales taxes it could impose, and was required to accept the Israeli shekel as one of its currencies.

The Cairo agreement rewrote diplomatic history in its preamble, claiming to be within the framework of the U.S.-USSR Madrid conference of 1991, and referring to the signing of the agreement in Washington, without mentioning Oslo. In this way, the U.S. sought to reassert control over mediating the peace process, an endeavor that would eventually have ruinous consequences when the time came for a permanent agreement.

Since the Gaza-Jericho agreement was not signed until May 1994, Palestinian self-rule did not take effect until that date, so the deadline for initiating final negotiations was extended to May 1996, with a permanent settlement to be implemented by May 1999.

The most significant diplomatic triumph for the Clinton administration was the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, in which King Hussein recognized the Jordan river as the international boundary with Israel, effectively relinquishing his claim of sovereignty over the West Bank in exchange for peace with Israel and the guarantee that the Palestinian question would not be resolved by deporting Arabs to Jordan, ending his fears of being overthrown by Palestinian militants. With a similar renunciation of sovereignty over Gaza by Egypt, other Arab nations could be excluded from the remainder of the peace process, leaving Arafat with no powerful allies.

Many Palestinians were dissatisfied with Oslo, resenting the unequal and subordinate role the Palestinian Authority had with respect to Israel, the lack of recognition of Palestinian sovereignty, and the general attitude that Palestinian self-rule was an Israeli concession rather than a human right. The right of return of refugees, a central issue for countless Palestinians, was not addressed at all by the accords. More radical groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP, refused to recognize Israel and still sought Arab rule over all of Palestine. These groups, together with their Likud counterparts on the Israeli side, had incentive to sabotage the peace process through violence, though there was surprisingly little terrorism in the early nineties.

The most significant violent act came unexpectedly from a Jewish religious militant who assassinated Rabin on 4 November 1995, shortly after the signing of an Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also known as Oslo II, which established a Palestinian Council and a schedule for Israeli withdrawal in accordance with Oslo I. The death of Rabin had fateful consequences, as the hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud was elected prime minister in May 1996, in the first direct popular election of an Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu’s upset victory over Shimon Peres was aided by Palestinian militants who conducted suicide bombings in March, killing dozens of Israelis. Netanyahu invoked the dangers of terrorism as justification for harsh dealings with the Palestinian Authority, holding Arafat responsible for these attacks. He immediately took provocative actions such as digging a tunnel under the Temple Mount, resulting in deadly riots, and claimed he would never exchange land for peace. Implementation of the Oslo accords was halted, and the permanent status negotiations scheduled for May 1996 never materialized.

Although Netanyahu opposed land for peace, he was willing to negotiate with Arafat and Clinton in 1998, resulting in the Wye River Accord, which provided a timetable for Israeli withdrawal in accordance with Oslo II, conditioned by security guarantees against terrorism, arms smuggling, and incitements to violence. Arafat reaffirmed at Wye his letter to Clinton claiming that his recognition of Israel at Oslo formally nullified anything in the Palestinian National Charter that denied Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu never implemented the withdrawal, as he claimed that the Palestinians had not met their security commitments.

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31. Barak-Arafat Negotiations (2000)

Netanyahu was defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak of Labor. Barak withdrew Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000, and froze construction of new Jewish settlements in the West bank, even dismantling unauthorized settlements, though he honored the previous government’s commitment to expand existing settlements. Most importantly, he revived serious peace negotiations with Arafat, mediated by President Clinton at Camp David. U.S. involvement may have been a hindrance in this case, as Clinton, soon to leave office, was anxious to come to a permanent settlement that would cement his presidential legacy.

Although there are contradictory accounts of what was proposed at Camp David in July 2000, it seems clear that Barak’s offer far exceeded those of any of his predecessors, while still falling short of several key Palestinian demands. The proposed final settlement would guarantee a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 92% of the West Bank, with some important caveats. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized, and subdivided by a razor-thin wedge of Israeli territory from Jerusalem to the Jordan. The Palestinians later claimed that this effectively subdivided Palestine into cantons, with Israelis controlling movement between territories, a charge Barak and Clinton have consistently denied. In any event, Israel was to retain 8% of the West Bank where Jewish settlements had long existed, and compensate the Palestinians with land from Israel proper equivalent to 1% of the West Bank. Palestinian refugees from the 1967 war could return to the West Bank, but there would be no right of return to Israel for refugees of the 1948 war, UN Resolution 194 notwithstanding. Most remarkably, Barak reversed decades of Israeli policy by conceding a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, with Palestinian sovereignty over some neighborhoods and “functional autonomy” over others, including “custodianship” of the Temple Mount.

As impressive as these proposals were, Arafat could hardly be blamed for finding them inadequate, as they rejected the right of return which had been endorsed by nearly every nation in the world save the U.S. and Israel, provided only limited sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, and, by insisting on demilitarization and potential cantonization, denied the Palestinian state the status of a sovereign entity fully equal to Israel. Arafat, to his discredit, did not produce a counterproposal, but simply refused the offer, perhaps expecting Barak and Clinton to revise their proposal. The proposal was not revised, reinforcing Palestinian perceptions that this was a “take it or leave it” offer. It did not help matters that Clinton worked out the proposal first with Barak only, and then asked the Palestinians to accept it. This asymmetric mediation was consistent with a long legacy of American bias toward Israel.

Clinton’s insistence on a final settlement before he left office, rather than another interim agreement, may have squandered the opportunity for further progress in the Oslo process. Clinton himself has revealed his preoccupation with his legacy, telling Arafat that his presidency was a failure because of his intransigence. Barak was also anxious for a final agreement, since he feared the Oslo process would involve continual Israeli concessions without imposing any limits on Palestinian demands for a final settlement. Barak has repeatedly expressed his conviction that Arafat was using the peace process as a stepping stone toward total victory over Israel. For this reason, he did want to make any concessions unless these were accepted as a final settlement by the Palestinians.

Arafat, for his part, expressed concern that Israel had not met its interim agreements, as some Israeli settlements were still expanding, the withdrawals had not proceed in accordance with the Wye Accord, and political prisoners had not been released. Arafat saw the fulfillment of the interim Oslo commitments as a necessary precondition for a final settlement. Barak and Clinton had strong political motivations to press for a final agreement, and could publicly vilify Arafat as an enemy of peace if he rejected it. Clinton assured Arafat that the U.S. would not blame the Palestinians if the summit failed, and promised action on Israeli withdrawal commitments under Oslo. Like many Clintonian promises, these were completely forgotten.

As for Barak’s offers, these were conveyed verbally by Clinton as U.S. proposals in order not to commit the Israelis to any of these concessions on the record. From the Palestinian perspective, Oslo already represented a major concession, acknowledging the practical reality that Israel would retain 78% of Palestine, up to the 1949 armistice line. Arab sovereignty over the West Bank was a matter of right, not Israeli concession. To describe Barak’s offer as “generous” would be to deny that Israel had wrongfully seized land from the Arabs in the first place.

The Palestinians did agree to a land swap so Israel could maintain sovereignty over some settlements, and even allowed that some of the 1948 refugees could receive compensation in lieu of return to their homes. They also were prepared to concede Israeli sovereignty over Jewish areas of East Jerusalem. Still, they never constructed anything resembling a coherent counterproposal, and Clinton more than once expressed his frustration with apparent Palestinian intransigence.

Palestinian mistrust and fear that they were reducing their internationally recognized inalienable rights to bargaining chips, combined with Barak’s unwillingness to commit to interim measures without a final agreement, all but guaranteed that no agreement would come out of Camp David. In December 2000, Clinton made a last-ditch effort to strike an agreement, this time offering the Palestinians about 95% of the West Bank and the equivalent of another 1%–3% from Israel proper, and all the Arab sectors East Jerusalem. After much deliberation, Arafat would reject this proposal as well, preferring to remain under the framework of UN resolutions and the Oslo accords rather than the “concessions” of Israel and the U.S.

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32. The Second Intifada

On 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount with hundreds of riot police. The following day, riots broke out throughout East Jerusalem, and Palestinians threw stones at Jews at the Wailing Wall. Similar riots erupted throughout the West Bank, in protest of Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit. Although the Israelis have tried to argue that this second intifada was planned by the PLO, citing earlier violent incidents that month, it strains credulity to link those isolated attacks with the widespread mass demonstrations throughout the territories. The immediate cause of the intifada was undisputedly Sharon’s visit, though the failure of the peace process certainly provided the background for popular frustration. Since the Israelis blamed the Palestinians for deliberately sabotaging the Camp David talks, it seemed obvious to them that the ensuing intifada was planned.

In the first few days of the intifada, dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers and police. The cycle of violence was rekindled, but unlike the first intifada, the Palestinians would exercise little restraint, resorting to terrorist and guerrilla tactics.

The chief beneficiary of the new security crisis was the provocateur Ariel Sharon, who was elected prime minister of Israel in February 2001. Sharon escalated the conflict by launching air raids against Gaza in May. Hamas and Islamic Jihad responded with terrorist attacks that summer. Israel assassinated the leader of the PFLP in August, and the PFLP responded by killing the Israeli tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, an overt racist who headed the National Union Party and called for the deportation of all Arabs, whom he regarded as “vermin” or “lice.” Zeevi’s racist views received little mention in the U.S., where his assassination was depicted as unmotivated murder, reinforcing the existing American climate of ignorance regarding the conflict. Palestinian terrorist attacks continued into the following year, killing dozens and wounding hundreds of civilians.

In response to a Hamas bombing of an Israeli hotel that killed 28 people, Sharon launched a military assault on the West Bank on 29 March, using the opportunity to attack the headquarters of Arafat, whom he blamed for the terrorism, although the PLO obviously had no control over Hamas. The increase in suicide bombings prompted Sharon to build a security fence, and continue targeted assassinations of the spiritual and military leaders of the Islamic militant groups, often killing bystanders in the process. Sharon resumed his old war crimes of indiscriminate reprisal killings, bulldozing houses, and uprooting orchards, while Hamas proved equally ruthless in its suicide attacks.

Arafat’s degree of responsibility for Palestinian terrorism has been much disputed, but it seems clear that he countenanced violent resistance to Israel, if not the suicide bombings favored by Islamic militants. Arafat’s Fatah organization smuggled arms into Palestine, and the Palestinian leader clashed with Mahmoud Abbas over security issues, the latter wishing to unequivocally denounce violence.

Frustrated with Arafat’s apparent lack of commitment to the peace process, the Bush administration refused to offer a new peace proposal until the Palestinian Authority appointed an independent prime minister. Abbas was named prime minister in March 2003, sparing the U.S. the necessity of negotiating with Arafat.

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33. Roadmap for Peace

On 30 April 2003, the “Quartet” of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, presented a “Roadmap for Peace” to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in an effort to revitalized the peace process. This proposal called for an immediate end to terrorism and violence by both sides, accompanied by unequivocal Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right to exist in peace. Israel for its part, would withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied since September 2000, as security was established, would freeze all settlement activity, and unequivocally commit to a two-state solution to the Palestine question with an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.

Another important aspect of the first phase of the proposal was the building of Palestinian political institutions, including the drafting of a constitution and free elections. Arafat’s government had been criticized as autocratic, corrupt, and incapable of providing public services. The Western powers wanted the Palestinians to produce a more transparent form of government in order to guarantee that financial investment in the Palestinian Authority would not be wasted. It was imperative that Sharon should desist from attacking Palestine, thereby undermining its attempts to build a stable, functional government.

The second phase of the roadmap was the creation of “an independent Palestinian state” with “provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty.” After Palestinian elections, an international conference would be convened in order to support the Palestinian economy and resolve issues regarding water rights, arms control, and the refugee issue.

Finally, by 2005, a permanent status agreement would be negotiated, resolving borders, the status of Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements. Peace settlements with Lebanon and Syria would also be negotiated at this time.

The Quartet’s roadmap was a welcome return to the Oslo process, after Clinton’s abortive attempt to impose a final settlement and the ensuing intifada. While the major issues were once again postponed to the future, the roadmap stressed the imperative of an immediate cessation of all violence and immediate recognition by both parties of a two-state solution, with each state fully independent and sovereign.

Implementation of the roadmap was short-lived. Sharon stunned many of his right-wing supporters by acknowledging that the “occupation” could not “continue endlessly,” and on 2 June, Israel released 100 Palestinian prisoners. Leaders of Arab nations reciprocated by agreeing to halt funding to Palestinian terrorist and guerrilla organizations. On 8 June, Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers in Gaza, leading to a retaliatory air strike that killed two Palestinians. On 11 June, a suicide bomber killed 17 Israeli civilians, leading to more retaliatory helicopter attacks. Abbas proved his merit by obtaining commitments from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the DFLP (formerly PDFLP) to a three-month ceasefire on 29 June. Fatah committed to a six-month halt to hostilities. Israel withdrew from northern Gaza and Bethlehem by 2 July, while the U.S. offered financial assistance to rebuild destroyed Palestinian Authority infrastructure.

From this point onward, the process stagnated. Israel did not freeze settlement expansion, and terrorist groups resumed their attacks. Abbas resigned in October 2003, frustrated not only by a lack of Israeli and American cooperation, but also by Arafat’s refusal to let him use Palestinian security forces to crack down on militants. Sharon would not withdraw from the remainder of the Palestinian territories he had invaded in 2000, citing the necessity of counter-terrorism measures.

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34. Unilateral Disengagement

In 2004, Ariel Sharon changed the terms of the conflict by announcing a plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle all Israeli settlements in Gaza, and four in the West Bank. This was a strong reversal for the former apostle of the settlements, motivated by a realization of demographic realities. Sharon considered withdrawing the Jewish population behind a security fence that would define a de facto border. In this way, Sharon would unilaterally resolve the Palestinian territorial question, and launch strikes into the West Bank as needed. President Bush endorsed Sharon’s withdrawal plan in February, after a U.S. diplomatic convoy was attacked in Gaza, and rebuked the Palestinian Authority for failing to halt terrorism.

Bush’s correspondence with Sharon reveals the shared conviction that there was no Palestinian partner for peace as long as Arafat still held power, preventing any substantive institutional reforms. Bush’s distrust of Arafat became moot when the Palestinian leader died in November 2004. He was replaced as president by Mahmoud Abbas, who called for a ceasefire in his inauguration speech on 15 January 2005. Backing up his words with actions, he ordered Palestinian Authority police to prevent militants from firing rockets at Israelis, and got militant leaders to agree to a ceasefire, all within his first month in office. Israel reciprocated by freeing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and withdrawing from West Bank cities. A formal truce was declared by Abbas and Sharon on 8 February.

Hamas immediately violated the ceasefire, prompting Abbas to crack down on its terrorist wing. President Bush rewarded this commitment with the first direct U.S. aid to Palestine, in the amount of $50 million (contrasted with $3 billion annual aid to Israel). Abbas demanded that Israel should also show good faith by taking strong preventive and punitive measures against killings of civilians by Israeli soldiers.

In August 2005, Sharon finally implemented his unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank, including the eviction of settlers and destruction of the settlements. The withdrawal was marred by the destruction of homes and air strikes intended to prove that Israel was not retreating.

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35. The Ascent of Islamic Militants

The peace initiatives of Sharon and Abbas, however imperfect, were widely praised by the international community. Domestically, however, both leaders faced strong opposition to their policies. Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and dismantling of settlements was a clear abandonment of Likud’s longstanding platform of retaining the occupied territories under Israeli sovereignty. Sharon imitated Ben-Gurion by leaving the party he founded, in this case Likud, and starting his own party, Kadima (“Forward”). Sharon was able to retain a governing majority, but was felled by a stroke in January 2006 that rendered him comatose. His successor, Ehud Olmert, was able to preserve Kadima’s majority and continue Sharon’s policy.

Abbas faced even worse political opposition, as the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was followed by the stunning electoral victory of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas’ popularity owes not only to its apparent success at forcing Israeli military withdrawal, but also for its ability to provide social services. Its role is in some ways analogous to that of the Histadrut during the British mandate period. Although Hamas’ political wing and military wing were organizationally separate, the U.S. considered the entire movement to be a terrorist organization, and refused to recognize the government. Abbas demanded that Hamas renounce its demand for the destruction of Israel and accept a two-state solution defined by the 1949 armistice line.

After threatening a national referendum on the issue, Abbas finally obtained an agreement with Hamas (and Fatah, its coalition partner for the sake of international legitimacy) in June. Hamas agreed to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza, implicitly accepting the existence of Israel, but not offering any explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist. The party also agreed to concentrate its attacks on Israelis in the occupied territories rather than in Israel proper, but would not renounce the use of violence.

Hamas could eventually prove a greater liability to Israel politically than militarily, as it insists on the refugees’ right of return and the withdrawal of Israel from all of the occupied territories. They reserve recourse to violence in the territories since these are Palestinian by right, not by Israeli concession. Hamas will not allow any of the fundamental Palestinian issues, several of which have been enshrined as rights by international resolutions, to be glossed over or treated as bargaining chips. Bush’s attempt to treat Hamas as irrelevant only strengthens their prestige, as Bush is widely despised in the Arab world.

Hamas operatives covertly launched missiles from Gaza into southern Israel, provoking an Israeli response through air strikes. The resulting civilian casualties gave Hamas a pretext for openly abandoning its ceasefire on 10 June 2006. This triggered a prolonged conflict between Israel and Hamas, consisting mostly of small-scale attacks and raids.

Victimized by terrorism from the south, Israel had an opportune moment to enact its long-standing plan to cripple Lebanon. Much had changed since the Lebanese civil war, and the nation was ruled not by Maronite generals, but by Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group that had fought to expel the Americans and Israelis in the 1980s. After its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the Israeli army still occupied the disputed Shebaa Farms region. Repeating its 1980s strategy against the PLO, Israel exchanged artillery attacks with the Lebanese in early 2006, launching provocative raids in the hopes that Hezbollah would do something that would justify a large-scale attack.

On 12 July, the desired pretext for war was delivered when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, demanding a prisoner exchange. Israel responded with a massive military offensive, bombarding Lebanon as far north as Beirut, killing about 1000 civilians, and indiscriminately destroying large residential areas, factories, and schools, as well as deliberately crippling the nation’s infrastructure of roads, airports, and power stations. The Israeli army chief of staff candidly admitted his intent to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by twenty years.” These blatant war crimes were denounced everywhere except the U.S., further undermining the Americans’ credibility as serious peace brokers in the Middle East.

On 15 July, the U.S. was the sole member of the UN Security Council to reject a ceasefire proposal, in order to allow Israel time to wipe out Hezbollah. Most of the 1000 civilian casualties occurred after that date. On 25 July, four UN peacekeepers were killed by Israeli shelling despite repeated UN communications that day calling for Israel to desist bombardment of that post. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the attack “apparently deliberate targeting.” On 11 August, the Security Council finally passed a ceasefire resolution, which took effect on 14 August. There were several violations of the ceasefire in the following weeks, mostly Israeli commando raids and air strikes. Israel imposed a naval and aerial blockade of Lebanon through early September.

After the war, Hezbollah supporters claimed victory, as Israel had failed in its objective to cripple their fighting capability. Olmert faced strong domestic criticism for Israel’s poor showing, but survived politically. Much of southern Lebanon remained uninhabitable due to Israeli use of cluster bombs in residential areas, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were displaced from their homes.

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36. Summary of Events

The Arab-Israeli conflict extends back about a century, not 1400 years or millennia, as is often erroneously asserted. The conflict did not originate between Arabs and those Jews who were indigenous to the region throughout the Ottoman period, but arose when Jews of European descent (Ashkenazis) began to acquire vast tracts of land at Palestine, often through legitimate purchases, but sometimes through dubious methods as well.

Tensions were exacerbated by the conflicting British promises of a Palestinian Arab state and a Jewish national home in Palestine proclaimed by the Balfour Declaration. Jewish immigration escalated during the mandate period, which witnessed the first significant incidents of Arab-Jewish violence. The Arabs viewed the European Jews as squatters or invaders, and generally wished to expel them from Palestine altogether. The Jews were motivated by the nationalist ideology of Zionism, which held that the Jewish ethnic group had the inalienable right to a national state.

Acts of Jewish terrorism against the British in the 1940s helped motivate the British withdrawal from Palestine, accompanied by a UN resolution partitioning the region into Arab, Jewish, and international zones. The Jews led by Ben-Gurion took matters into own hands, using force and intimidation to ethnically cleanse parts of Palestine of Arabs, acquiring a much greater portion of Palestine than reflected by their settlements to date, and more than even the UN had granted them. The 1948 war created hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, who demanded the right to return to their homes, even as many of their villages were demolished and replaced by Israeli settlements.

The 1949 armistice line was accepted as a basis for ending international violence, but the neighboring Arab states continued to argue that the Israeli acquisitions by war were illegitimate. Unfortunately, most Arabs also opposed even the UN partition, or any partition, and wanted all of Palestine to be under majority Arab rule. This uncompromising position allowed Israel to dig in its heels and refuse to consider any right of return for refugees or any land concessions.

The Six-Day War of 1967 resulted in Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula, the last eventually being returned to Egypt through the Camp David accords. UN Resolution 242 immediately condemned attempts by Israel to make these land conquests permanent, though Israel already declared newly acquired East Jerusalem to be a non-negotiable part of Israel. From this point onward, Israel would boldly flout international law regarding the illegitimacy of acquiring territory by conquest, the right of refugees to return peacefully to their homes or receive compensation, and the right to national self-determination. Rather than recognizing these inalienable human rights, Israel saw these issues as bargaining points in exchange for security.

Israeli contempt for international law and human rights increased from 1977 onward, when the Likud government accelerated the creation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and brazenly seized over 30% of the Arabs’ land without payment. Israel consistently refused to recognize the Palestinians as a nationality of equal legitimacy to themselves, and imposed a colonial style of rule where economic laws and police tactics were applied differently to Jews and Arabs. The fact that the government supported settlements were all Jewish, and not Israeli Arab, exposes the blatantly racist agenda of the government.

The Israeli regime went too far even in the eyes of many Israelis and Americans in its brutal suppression of the Palestinian intifada of 1987, an unarmed popular uprising that resulted in the destruction of homes, indiscriminate arrests without trials, and racially motivated beatings, torture, and killings by Israeli soldiers.

These atrocities raised calls to restart the peace process, thereby enhancing the status of Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which had long resorted to terrorist and guerrilla tactics in its opposition to Israel, and called for the abolition of the Israeli state. Now, for the first time, the PLO was explicitly willing to consider a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 established a five-year transition period of Palestinian autonomy over parts of the occupied territories, deferring the most contentious issues to a final settlement. Its most notable accomplishment was getting Israel and the PLO to formally recognize each other directly as negotiating partners. Jordan and Egypt were excluded from the Palestinian peace process through separate treaties with Israel.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and his replacement by Benjamin Netanyahu led to renewed conflict, due to the latter’s provocative policies, including expansion of the Jewish settlements. Israel lagged behind its withdrawal commitments, while Arafat seemed at times to have a laissez faire attitude toward Palestinian terrorism.

A glimmer of hope surfaced with the Barak-Arafat negotiations at Camp David in 2000, but Clinton pressed for too much too soon, when the interim commitments of the Oslo Accords still had not been met. Nonetheless, the Palestinians hurt their cause by failing to offer counterproposals.

Ariel Sharon, who was certainly no advocate of the Camp David proposal, provoked a second intifada, the deeper causes of which were the failures to see continued progress in the Oslo Accords. Israeli withdrawals had ceased, while settlements expanded and the Palestinians still had no real sovereignty. Sharon was swept to power by the violent dynamic he stimulated, and proceeded to reverse Oslo, destroying Palestinian infrastructure through repeated incursions.

Arafat’s unwillingness to rein in militants and the ineffectiveness of his government caused him to lose the trust of President Bush, who refused to negotiate with him. When Mahmoud Abbas was named prime minister, Bush was able to present the “roadmap” that for the first time guaranteed full sovereignty to a Palestinian state.

The roadmap process was paralyzed by Sharon’s refusal to freeze settlement construction and Arafat’s reluctance to crack down on militants. After Arafat’s death, Abbas took significant measures to restrain violence. Meanwhile, Sharon implemented a unilateral disengagement policy, abandoning Likud opposition to a two-state solution.

In 2006, conflict flared again as Hamas won Palestinian elections and started a cycle of violent exchanges with Israel. New prime minister Ehud Olmert launched a massive attack on Lebanon, which fell short of its military objectives and alienated Israel diplomatically.

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The Arab-Israeli conflict is first and foremost a land dispute. Jewish settlers, with the help of foreign capital and the assent of the Ottoman government, were able to acquire land and evict Arab tenants. There were only 80,000 Jews in Palestine in 1914; hundreds of thousands more came during the British mandate period, in fulfillment of the promise of the Balfour Declaration. During this period, land acquisition accelerated, but even so, Jews held only 6% of Palestine by 1946. Relative to these holdings, the UN partition was exceedingly generous in granting half of Palestine including the Negev to the Jews. Still, the Zionists conquered western Galilee and central Palestine, including part of Jerusalem during the 1948 war. Even if it were true that the Arabs were the sole provocateurs of the conflict, a right of conquest cannot thereby be derived.

Israel’s recognition by the international community under UN Resolution 273 was contingent upon Israel’s acceptance of the 1947 partition and the right of return of refugees of the 1948 war. Israel has consistently rejected both of these conditions in practice throughout its history, while insisting on its absolute right to existence. Every nation in the world except the U.S. and Israel has formally recognized the territorial rights of Palestinians and their right of return.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians have historically adopted an extreme position, rejecting the UN partition and the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinian National Charter has openly declared that Jewish nationhood is to be utterly denied by violent action, and Palestine is to be single state with majority Arab rule.

Israel, for its part, has had no regard for Palestinian rights, treating all of Palestine as if it belonged to Jews by right, and allowing only that some of it may be “conceded” to Arabs in exchange for peace. This stance is a denial of the historical reality that most of Palestine was acquired by the Jews through coercive means, and Arab violence is largely a response to the Jewish conquest and occupation.

The further conquests of the 1967 war and changing facts on the ground has compelled many Palestinians to accept the 1949 border as an acceptable compromise. These facts were changed by a deliberate Israeli policy of creating ethnically Jewish settlements in order to acquire more territory. The fact that these settlements are ethnically Jewish and not Israeli Arab betrays the racist logic of the Israeli regime. Zionism is a relic of nineteenth-century racial nationalism, where national identity is defined by race. Arabs and Jews are treated unequally in Israel, and even more so in the occupied territories. The brutal human rights violations in the occupied territories by Israeli soldiers are targeted against Arabs, not Jews, following the racist logic of collective punishment. That this inequity of treatment constitutes de facto racial apartheid is evident to all but the Americans and Israelis. Considering that the U.S. was the only nation to refuse to condemn the South African regime in the 1980s, this is hardly surprising.

The militant rabbi Meir Kahane observed that the concept of a secular Zionist democracy is founded on an internal contradiction. A state cannot be truly democratic yet constitutionally require that the majority of the population be of a certain ethnicity. Kahane’s solution was ethnic cleansing; recognizing that secular Israelis had adopted that practice in Israel proper, he wished to expand it to the territories. Calls for the expulsion of Arabs often came from Likud politicians, though they did not cite overtly religious justifications. The position of the religious parties (since they radicalized through American Jewish influence in the 1970s) that Judea and Samaria belonged to Israel by divine right was at least more tenable than Likud’s secular claims without basis in international law.

Arafat publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist, but it is not clear whether he saw the two-state solution as a final settlement, or a mere stepping stone to a unified Palestine under Arab rule. Hamas certainly preferred the latter, and did what it could to sabotage the peace process, while Netanyahu, Sharon, and Barak refused to freeze the expansion of settlements, and blamed Arafat for terrorism while they crippled the Palestinian Authority’s infrastructure, fulfilling their own prophecy that it was incapable of governing.

Sharon’s unilateral disengagement was an admission of the practical impossibility of establishing a Jewish majority in all of Palestine. For similar demographic reasons, Israel refuses to admit a right of return for the 1948 refugees, since Jews would no longer be an ethnic majority in Israel.

With the “roadmap” for peace, both sides are firmly committed to a two-state solution. It is in both parties’ interests to arrive at a just solution, or violence will continue even after a final settlement. A just solution ought to include:

  1. A return to the 1949 armistice line, in accordance with UN Resolution 242. Any deviation from this line must be compensated by Israel with territory that is acceptable to the Palestinians.
  2. Right of return for all 1967 refugees, and equivalent compensation for lands seized from 1948 refugees and for their resettlement in Palestine.
  3. Dismantling of all post-1977 settlements, or the submission of Jewish residents there to Palestinian sovereignty.
  4. Internationalization or partition of Jerusalem, with Arab sectors contiguous with Palestine.

Israel has long obstructed progress on these issues, claiming the need for security, when in fact its occupation of the territories has guaranteed a perpetual security crisis. Palestine ought to be fully independent of Israel as a matter of right, and as long as the refugee and territorial issues are unresolved, Israel can have no peace. Nixon and the elder Bush were the only U.S. presidents who appreciated the magnitude of Israeli intransigence, yet they also realized that the Arabs did themselves no favors by demanding all of Palestine.

Zionism was a complete failure at resolving the Jewish question; in fact, it revived the ancient stereotype that the Jews are incapable of living among other nations and submitting to the laws of gentiles. More striking is the racist character of those Zionists who espouse the expulsion of Palestinians or regard them as subhuman. It would seem that their only quarrel with the Nazis is that they persecuted Jews rather than Arabs.

Arabs, for their part, continue to demonize the Jews in all their media, thoroughly failing to keep their commitment not to incite violence or hatred toward Israel. The facts of the territorial and refugee disputes are so clearly on the side of the Arabs that they might have easily received satisfaction long ago had they adopted a less militant culture. On the other hand, militarism has arisen every time it appeared there was a danger of “selling out” the Palestinian cause.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the one-sided diplomacy of the United States. Valuing its own global strategy and domestic politics more than the regional concerns of the Middle East, the U.S. has been practically a “rogue state” in its unilateral support of Israel. This is not problematic to many Americans, who imagine the UN to consist of effete socialists and weak-kneed pacifists who are possibly closet anti-Semites. It is easier for them to believe that every other nation in the world is weak or corrupt on this issue than that the U.S. is acting on the basis of ethnic and national bias, rather than the principles of the laws of nations.

Uncritical U.S. support of Israel makes less strategic sense in a post-Cold War world, where bias toward Israel only undermines broader goals in the Middle East. The Arab world has noted the hypocrisy of ostracizing Arafat over terrorism while dealing with terrorists like Begin and Shamir, or war criminals like Sharon. It is similarly inconsistent to object to Iraqi violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty while countenancing decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon. The same may be said of American tolerance of Israel’s illegal nuclear weapons program while objecting to Iraqi and Iranian programs, or of the security restrictions against Arab nationals in the U.S. while Israel has repeatedly been caught spying on the U.S., sometimes through operatives in the American pro-Israel lobby. Eighty percent of U.S. senators endorse the platform of these lobbyists, making it politically difficult for any president to broker a just peace.

Most ruinously, the U.S. has generally endorsed the idea that Palestinians are to be denied sovereignty until they demonstrate good behavior, belying a bigoted assumption that Israelis are somehow more responsible than the Arabs under their oversight, when in fact Israel has behaved deplorably toward all its neighbors since its founding, and by its own standard, would be unworthy of sovereignty since it constantly jeopardizes the security of its neighbors (most recently with the bombing of Beirut). Unequivocal American support of Israel is fed by a volatile mix of ignorance, militarism and racism. At most, I hope to remedy the first of these conditions.

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See also: U.S. Policy in Iraq | The “War on Terror”


Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab Israeli-Conflict, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993)

© 2007, 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.